From a quarter-mile away, you could have thought the sound was coming from stock car engines. A little closer, and what appeared to be drag-racing ATVs came into view.
Who would have thought that they were actually lawn mowers?
Close to 300 people were in attendance Sunday at the Great Grand Island Lawn Mower Race, a local institution that began in the late 1960s but was reincarnated last year after a 22-year hiatus. Thirty-eight entrants from five different lawn mower classes reached top speeds of anywhere from 5 to 50 mph during the afternoon.
Floyd Doring, 76, of West River Road in Grand Island, began the tradition on Father's Day in 1968 with a neighbor, Pat Murphy. Doring, now the event's lead organizer, said the race was a friendly bet to see who could race their lawn mower the fastest. Doring won that first round.
Over the next 20 years, the race, which has always been held on Father's Day, began to mushroom as an event as more people began to hear of it through word-of-mouth. In 1985, the event drew about 250 people, without the benefit of advertisements or a town permit to close down the road.
After 1987, legal concerns prompted Doring and others to close down the event, and the tradition languished for years.
This year's race was run on a half-mile section of Grand Island's West River Parkway between Long Road and Sunset Drive, with Navy Island and the Niagara River in full view. Each heat of five racers were lined up and given the start by Gary Roesch, 67.
As the starter and heat organizer for the lawn mower races, Roesch fulfills the same role that his father, Gene Roesch, did from 1968 to 1987, and used the same starting flag as well. Gary Roesch, whose father died in 2000, was given that same flag two years ago from Doring.
The flag was originally used at the Buffalo Launch Club in the 1950s and '60s before coming into the elder Roesch's possession.
"Floyd had said that we're not doing this any more," said Gary Roesch. "But I thought, 'Let's try to get this together.' "
Roesch and Grand Island Town Supervisor Peter McMahon approached Doring later that year about restarting the event.
"I had two conditions," said Doring. "It had to be on Father's Day, and it had to be on West River Parkway."
In 2009, after obtaining liability insurance and a permit to close down West River Parkway, the event was reopened, which engendered some local acclaim. "It's gone over very well in Grand Island," said Doring. "Fathers look forward to it."
Last year's top speed was reached by Grand Island resident Robert Mesmer, who hit 78 mph on a lawn mower that had been equipped with a jet engine.
Pete Marston, 41, had just driven a modified Husqvarna, reaching a top speed of 46.3 mph.
"It's definitely a rush," Marston said. "It's like going 200 in a car."
Marston had attended last year's races, but this year he volunteered for the Pit Crew, a group of about 10 who facilitated the day's events, and raced as well. His small-engine lawn mower business, Marston Power Equipment , had worked on many of the lawn mowers racing in the modified division.
"It's great for the community, and it's a great cause, too," said Marston. Proceeds from the event, including those from the sale of food and T-shirts, will be donated to the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life. Event organizers said they hoped to raise anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000.
Certainly the day's most interesting entrant was Jim Mazza, 68, of Grand Island. Sporting a headband with blue foam Viking horns over a baseball cap, Mazza, a retired biology and anatomy teacher from Grand Island High School, rode his John Deere in the stock class. Although unmodified, his vehicle was flying both a Bills flag and an American flag, had a Grand Island Vikings towel draped over the back and a gold helmet with Viking horns duct-taped to the top of his lawn mower's front compartment.
"It's not for speed," said Mazza, whose lawn mower topped out at 6 mph. "It's designed to intimidate."
Mazza was attending with his wife, Marilyn, for the second straight year. "It's a really neat thing to do as a community," he said. "But there are some serious guys here."
Jon Caruana, 19, was one of those serious guys. He won the open-modified division, which allows a wide range of modifications. Open-modified drivers were required to wear extensive protective equipment, including helmets and padding. Caruana's top speed for the entire day was 51.3 mph.
"I can't explain it," Caruana said of drag racing his 1990 Husqvarna. The lawn mower had been modified by Marston's company to give it a stronger engine, pulley system, steering system and exhaust.
Caruana was very positive about the event.
"I think it's awesome, they should do it every year," he said. "I want to come back and see what other people build."